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This reading group guide forMemory Wall includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set on four continents, the stories in this stunning collection are about memory, the source of meaning and coherence in our lives, the fragile thread that connects us to ourselves and others. Every hour, says author Anthony Doerr, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear. Yet at the same time children, surveying territory entirely new to them, form fresh memories and remake the world. Every story in Memory Wall is a reminder of the grandeur of life—of the mysterious beauty of seeds, of fossils and fish, of clouds and radios and leaves, of the breathtaking fortune of living in this universe.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The characters in Anthony Doerr's stories are different ages, live on four different continents, and have diverse life experiences. How are they similar? Which universal themes about memory are contained in each story?
2. In the story “Memory Wall,” memories can literally be found in cartridges that are produced at the memory clinic. What other manifestations do memories take throughout the stories, both physical and otherwise?
3. Given the subjective nature of recollections, how accurate or true-to-life do you think the memories that have been implanted in Alma’s cartridges are? Do you think the cartridges are ultimately helpful to Alma? Do they bring her happiness? Can the erasure of memories in old age ever be avoided?
4. On page 42 Alma tells Pheko, “To say a person is a happy person or an unhappy person is ridiculous. We are a thousand different kinds of people every hour.” Do you agree? Do the various items on Alma’s memory wall support her claim? How do the items on Alma’s memory wall create a narrative for her life?
5. Alma has a special cartridge, number 4510, that Pheko plays for her often. If you could transfer your own memories to cartridges that you could replay in your mind, would you? Why or why not? Do you have particular memories that you’d like to experience over and over again?
6. Alma was perplexed by Harold’s interest in fossils, yet she goes to great lengths to hold on to her memories. What do you think drew Harold to the study and collection of fossils? How are fossils like human memories? How does nature as a whole contain remembrances of our collective past?
7. Alma is a product of a society that for generations upheld the laws and prejudices of apartheid. Do you feel any kind of sympathy for Alma? Why or why not?
8. In “Procreate, Generate,” both Imogene and Herb desperately want to have a child. In the context of memory, why do you think having a baby is so important to them? Particularly to Imogene?
9. In the soldier’s mind in “The Demilitarized Zone,” life at home goes on as usual while he is deployed in Korea. How do his impressions of home differ from the reality of his parents’ estrangement? How might the soldier's experiences in Korea match up or diverge with his grandfather's memories of his own time there?
10. The planned submersion of the village in “Village 113” promises to obliterate memories of an entire way of life. On page 135, Li Qing writes to his mother, “You don’t have to remain loyal to one place all your life.” How much does place matter in the keeping of traditions? What are some ways to prevent this destruction of the village's collective memories, even after the dam has been built and its inhabitants have moved away?
11. On page 151 of “Village 113”, the seed keeper thinks, “What is a seed if not the purest kind of memory, a link to every generation that has gone before it?” Discuss this metaphor of a seed as a link to the past.
12. What do you think the sturgeon in “The River Nemunas” represents? Why is it so important for Allison to catch one and to convince her grandfather that they can still be found in the river?
13. Esther’s epileptic fits in “Afterworld” allow her to revisit the ghosts of her past in the present, prompting her to think that “Maybe not every disease is a deficit, a taking away. Maybe what’s happening to her is an opening, a window, a migration.” (p. 224) Do you agree? Do you think her spells allow her to finally find closure and move past her survivor’s guilt?
14. On the final page of Memory Wall, the author writes, "Every hour, Robert thinks, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new." How does this quote apply to the stories in this collection?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. All of the characters in Memory Wall are determined to hold on to their memories, in some way or another. One of the easiest ways to make specific thoughts and memories last is to write about them. Keep a journal of your day to day life, with an eye toward revisiting your writings sometime in the future.
2. Watch a movie that you remember having loved as a child, but that you haven't seen in a while. How have your life experiences impacted your interpretation of the film? Does it hold up in the present day? What are you reminded of when watching the movie?
3. In many of the stories in the collection, the memories of the elderly are destined to die when they do. Ask older relatives to share their stories with you. Ask about what their lives were like as children and as they grew up, so that you can remember for them, and pass their stories down to future generations.
Anthony Doerr is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. He is also the author of two story collections Memory Wall and The Shell Collector, the novel About Grace, and the memoir Four Seasons in Rome. He has won four O. Henry Prizes, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, the National Magazine Award for fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Story Prize. Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and two sons.